Rookie Rankings: Russell beginning to shine


For the first quarter of the season, Los Angeles Lakers head coach Byron Scott has not felt comfortable giving big minutes to No. 2 overall pick D’Angelo Russell. Scott seems well aware of Russell’s potential but wants the Lakers rookie to prove himself worthy of playing not just 30-plus minutes, but the most important of those minutes down the stretch of close games. This tough love approach has been difficult for Russell as he has clearly had his growing pains adjusting to the NBA after one year at Ohio State.

However, things are starting to turn in Russell’s favor. In a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves in early December, Scott gave Russell the opportunity to play big minutes and in a crunch-time situation and the Lakers rookie responded quite admirably. Since that game, Russell has averaged 19.5 points, 5.0 assists and 2.8 rebounds in 33.8 minutes.

“It’s just opportunity,” Russell said after the Lakers lost to the Spurs last Friday in San Antonio. “The opportunity that I [have] now wasn’t the same earlier this season. I feel like I was thinking too much instead of going out there and just playing. Guys are starting to see, ‘He knows what he’s doing a little bit.’ I think it will just only get better.”

Russell also noted that as his relationship with Scott grows stronger, his confidence and the opportunity to play will only increase.

“You’ve got to build that relationship with your coach and know that you’re a rookie coming into this league but you didn’t get here on accident,” Russell said. “So once I get that trust with my coach, I know I’ll feel like I’ll have that opportunity more and more.”

Making the most of his opportunity, Russell has climbed up our rookie power rankings and is third overall this week. Let’s take a look at how the rest of his fellow youngsters fared in this week’s rankings:

Studs

1. Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers (Last week #8) — Playing like he had something to prove after his two-game suspension, Okafor was an absolute beast in Philadelphia’s last four games — shooting 48 percent while averaging 22.3 points, 9.5 rebounds, one assist and 1.3 blocks in 32.7 minutes. Unfortunately for Okafor, his individual performances couldn’t lead the Sixers to their second win of the season. But after his character and commitment was called into question due to his off-court transgressions, Okafor quickly quieted down all that talk with his play.

It is truly amazing how good Okafor is in the post. Check out this play against Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah for example. Okafor just uses a super quick first step to blow by Noah and throw down a nice one-handed slam.

Okafor leads all rookies in scoring (17.8 ppg) and is third in blocks (1.5) and rebounds (8.1).

2. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves (#1) — Okafor’s consistent scoring and rebounding last week gives him a slight edge over Towns, who also had a phenomenal week. Towns had one of the best games of his young career against the Lakers on Wednesday, finishing with a monster line of 26 points, 14 rebounds, one assist and three blocks. Two solid games against the Nuggets helped round out Towns’ week but an eight-point, six-rebound effort against Phoenix Suns on Sunday also helped to give Okafor the No. 1 spot.

Towns’ talent is unquestionable. He leads all rookies in rebounds (9.0) and blocks (2.2), and is second amongst all rookies in scoring with 15.0 points a game. He continues to make plays no 20-year-old rookie centers should be making.

3. D’Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers (#4) — Taking advantage of an injury to Jordan Clarkson that put him in the Lakers’ starting lineup for two games, Russell is beginning to consistently play at a high level. Against the Timberwolves on Wednesday, Russell finished the game with 23 points and three assists. He followed that up with a 24 point, six-rebound, six-assist performance against the Spurs in which he hit five of his 10 3-pointers.

Russell also did a great job being the Lakers’ primary ball handler. Like with this play near the end of the game, where Russell kept his dribble alive while he circled the basket before finding a wide open Brandon Bass.

Russell was also instrumental in helping the Lakers get their fourth win of the season on Tuesday night, scoring 17 points, grabbing four rebounds and dishing out seven assists. If Russell keeps getting 30-plus minutes a night, he should continue to blossom.

4. Justise Winslow, Miami Heat (#3) — Winslow continues to shine in fourth quarters for the Heat. He leads all rookies in fourth-quarter minutes (9.2) and has a net rating of +14.2 (via Dancing With Noah) in the game’s final period. Winslow is a major reason why Miami is giving up just 93.6 points a game, which is second overall in the NBA.

However, Winslow has struggled to shoot the ball (41.2 percent and 22.7 percent from 3-point range) and teams have begun to sag off him, allowing him to shoot wide-open mid-range shots that he routinely misses. This could become a problem for the Heat, especially in the playoffs when teams become more locked in on defending Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Everyone talks about Winslow’s terrific work ethic, so it’s not hard to imagine him improving his shooting as the year goes on.

5. Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks (#2) — Although he may not want to admit it, Kristaps Porzingis may have hit the rookie wall in New York’s three-game road trip last week. Underperforming in New York’s last three games, Porzingis told reporters that his play was due to being fatigued but that he didn’t actually believe in the rookie wall. Rookie wall or not, Porzingis simply didn’t have it for the Knicks last week but did have a fine game against the Kings on Thursday, finishing with 13 points and seven rebounds.

A lot of pressure and expectations have been put on Porzingis thanks to his fast start and it may have just caught up with him for a bit. We’ve seen how good he can be. Last week was likely an anomaly.

Promising

6. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (#9) — Back to a reserve role off the bench, Jokic is looking like a solid rotational player for the Nuggets. Jokic had an impressive game against the Timberwolves on Friday, doing a little bit of everything to finish with 19 points, six rebounds, four assists and one steal. The 6-foot-10 Nuggets center followed that up with a nine-point, seven-rebound effort against the Rockets on Monday.

7. T.J. McConnell, Philadelphia 76ers (#9) — McConnell exploded for a career-high 17 points against the Brooklyn Nets last Thursday and has continued to play well off the bench for the Sixers. In his last four games, McConnell is averaging eight points, five rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.3 steals. McConnell is still second among rookies in assists, averaging 5.4 a game.

8. Stanley Johnson, Detroit Pistons (#6) — Since the second week of December, Johnson’s scoring and field-goal percentage have taken a bit of a dip since his strong start to the season. Johnson is still playing a key role off the bench but has shot 32 percent while averaging 4.3 points and three rebounds in Detroit’s last four games. He is a solid defender but similar to Winslow, if the Pistons want to make it into the postseason in the East, they will need Johnson to become a strong contributor on their second unit.

9. Frank Kaminsky, Charlotte Hornets (#11) — Kaminsky has emerged as a strong player off the bench for the Hornets. He is a fine pick-and-pop player and shooting 41.7 from 3, Kaminsky is often forcing opposing defenders to honor his shot. Against the Grizzlies, Kaminsky had an excellent game, finishing with 15 points (FG: 4-6, 3PT: 1-2), six rebounds and three assists.

10. Emmanuel Mudiay, Denver Nuggets (#5) — Nursing a sprained right ankle, Mudiay could miss several more games before returning. Mudiay only played in the first half against the Timberwolves on Friday before leaving the game. He then missed Denver’s next two games and a timetable for his return has still not been announced. Despite his absence, Mudiay is still leading all rookies in assists with 5.7 a game.

Under the radar

11. Mario Hezonja, Orlando Magic (Not Ranked) — Back in the rotation for the Magic, Hezonja scored 12 points against the Cavs on Friday and followed that up with an eight-point, three-rebound performance against the Nets on Monday. Hezonja has played about 19 minutes in Orlando’s last two games and has the potential of climbing up our ranks if he can keep playing at a consistent level.

12. Jonathon Simmons, San Antonio Spurs (Not Ranked) — The reigning Las Vegas Summer League Finals MVP has been given more of an opportunity as of late and has been playing quite well off the bench for the Spurs. In San Antonio’s last four games, Simmons has averaged 8.3 points and 3.3 rebounds in 18.9 minutes. He also has had a knack for making highlight plays.